Wairarapa-Bush hooker Elijah-James Pakoti makes a strong run during the Lochore Cup Final against Horowhenua Kapiti. PHOTOS/GETTY IMAGES
Wairarapa-Bush went within a couple of metres of snatching a dramatic last-minute win in the Lochore Cup final against Horowhenua-Kapiti in Levin on Sunday.
With time up on the clock and trailing 26-23, Wairarapa-Bush launched wave after wave of attack near the Horowhenua-Kapiti line, but a turnover allowed the home team to clear the ball into touch and celebrate their first-ever Lochore Cup win.
Wairarapa-Bush captain James Goodger was gutted with the result but thrilled with the progress his team made this season.
“Obviously, the game could have gone either way, but credit to Horowhenua for taking it at the end there.
“I think we lost the first six games in a row, including pre-season, and we’re not a big team, but there’s so much pride in our guys.
“Once we built that culture, it all came together and we managed to get a few wins, and to play in the Lochore Cup final was a pleasure.”
Horowhenua-Kapiti dominated the opening 20 minutes of the match with the breeze at their backs.
First five-eighth James So’oialo directed play expertly and nailed three penalty goals in quick succession to give his side a 9-0 lead.
Just when it looked as if Horowhenua-Kapiti may run away with the match, a moment of individual brilliance from wing Soli Malatai – who was the most dangerous player for Wairarapa-Bush throughout the match – got the visitors right back in the game.
Horowhenua-Kapiti were attacking deep inside Wairarapa-Bush territory, before Malatai stripped the ball from centre Timoci Serawalu and sprinted 80m untouched to score near the posts.
Suddenly Wairarapa-Bush looked the more dominant team, but they failed to capitalise on that momentum.
On the half-hour mark, Horowhenua-Kapiti flanker Aaron Lahmert crashed over from close range to open up a 16-7 advantage.
Wairarapa-Bush had a chance to score right on halftime, but second five-eighth Mike Lealava’a was held up over the line.
The visitors came out with noticeable energy and intent in the second half, and were rewarded immediately as Malatai made a strong break, before prop Sam Gammie reached out to score.
So’oialo responded with another penalty to put his side ahead 19-14, but Wairarapa-Bush were not about to lie down and first five-eighth Tipene Haira kicked a penalty of his own to close the gap to two points.
With 20 minutes remaining, Haira calmly slotted another penalty to give Wairarapa-Bush the lead for the first time in the match.
He added another five minutes later to increase the margin to 23-19, and all the momentum seemed to be with Wairarapa-Bush.
But Horowhenua-Kapiti went back to what had worked so well in their previous matches against Wairarapa-Bush this year, working their way into an attacking position and then using their dominant scrum to put the visitors on the back foot.
Eventually the pressure told with the home team scoring through replacement hooker David McErlean to take a 26-23 lead with seven minutes remaining.
Wairarapa-Bush gave themselves every opportunity to steal the win at the death but came up agonisingly short.
Wairarapa-Bush assistant coach Deon van Deventer said they could not fault the efforts of their players.
“At halftime we knew we were in the game, because we hadn’t played a lot of rugby and weren’t that far behind.
“There was a lot of energy after halftime and the guys really pushed hard – it was just small moments.”
Wairarapa-Bush copped plenty of criticism after a winless pre-season and losses in the first two rounds of the Heartland Championship, but Van Deventer was confident there was now a solid platform to build on in 2019.
“Our guys rolled their sleeves up and played with so much heart.
“That’s the feeling within the playing group – there’s a lot of energy and guys talking about next year, which is really positive.”
Horowhenua-Kapiti 26 [Aaron Lahmert and David McErlean tries; James So’oialo 2 conversions and 4 penalty goals] beat Wairarapa-Bush 23 [Soli Malatai and Sam Gammie tries; Tipene Haira 2 conversions and 3 penalty goals].